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Low-Stress Turkey for a Crowd

By Steve Dunn Published

Moist, tender meat; crisp, bronzed skin; and rich, full flavored gravy for twenty? No problem—if you think like a chef.

Hosting a big crowd on Thanksgiving has the potential to be disastrous. That’s because the usual approaches—roasting two average-size birds or one enormous one—are fraught with issues. Two turkeys require dual ovens—a nonstarter for most. And a single large bird hogs the oven, making it off-limits for other dishes. A 20-pounder can also be a real challenge to maneuver in and out of the oven and nearly impossible to flip during roasting to promote evenly cooked white and dark meat. What’s more, a large bird tends to overcook on the exterior while the interior comes up to temperature. And no matter how many birds you roast, there’s still the last-minute scramble to make gravy from pan drippings. Finally, you must compose yourself for tableside carving.

But keep reading, because things are about to change. All the stress melts away if you think more like a professional chef. You see, a good chef is a master at breaking down complex dishes into simple components and then devising a timeline to prepare as much as possible in advance. Once I started thinking in those terms, all sorts of possibilities opened up.

Associate editor Steve Dunn explains his process: Brush the braised leg quarters with melted butter, and then reheat them in a 500-degree oven to brown and crisp the skin.

My first move was the biggest game changer: Instead of roasting two whole turkeys, I separately cooked two bone-in breasts and four leg quarters. This meant that I could use different cooking techniques for each to guarantee juicy, tender results. Working with parts also presented some terrific make-ahead opportunities.

I sketched out a plan: I would start by braising the leg quarters up to a few days before the feast. Low, slow braising promises tender, moist dark meat since it gives the abundant collagen time to turn into supple gelatin—and the reheated dark meat would taste just as good as freshly made. What’s more, a flavor-packed braising liquid (broth, white wine, fresh herbs, and aromatics) would be an ideal base for a big batch of gravy that I could also prepare in advance.

With the dark meat and gravy taken care of, I would salt the breasts the day before Thanksgiving to season the flesh and hold in moisture. Then, the only tasks left would be roasting the breasts (this takes 2 hours, freeing up precious oven space) and reheating the thighs, drumsticks, and gravy. Brushing the skin of the braised dark meat with melted butter and cranking the heat to 500 degrees would encourage browning and crisping so all the parts would arrive at the table looking as if they had come from two whole birds.

I executed my plan without a hitch. At serving time, the parts were a breeze to carve and made a gorgeous presentation on a platter. Moist, tender, well-seasoned white and dark meat? Check. Bronzed, crisp skin? Check. Sumptuous gravy? Check. Cool, calm, and collected host? Check, check, check.

Turkey and Gravy for a Crowd Timeline

  • up to 3 days in advance

    Braise Leg Quarters; Make Gravy

    We first make a braising liquid by sautéing aromatics and herbs in butter in a large roasting pan and adding broth, water, and wine. We add the drumsticks and thighs to the pan, cover them with parchment paper and aluminum foil, and braise them in the oven until the thighs register 170 degrees, 2½ to 3 hours. Once they are cool, we transfer the thighs and drumsticks to a container and refrigerate them. 

    For the gravy, we strain the contents of the roasting pan through a fine‑mesh strainer, defat the liquid, and reserve the fat. We add flour to the fat to make a roux and then whisk in the reserved braising liquid and simmer until the gravy is thickened and reduced. Finally, we transfer the gravy to a container and refrigerate it.

  • Day Before

    Butcher and Salt Breasts

    We first separate the backs from the breasts and then salt the breasts to season the meat and ensure that it will stay juicy when roasted. To salt the meat, we loosen the skin and peel it back, leaving it attached at the top and center of each breast. We rub 1 teaspoon of salt onto each side of each breast and then place the skin back over the meat. We also rub 1 teaspoon of salt onto the underside of the breast cavity. Finally, we refrigerate the breasts for 24 hours.

  • Serving Day

    Roast Breasts, Reheat Dark Meat and Gravy, Carve

    On serving day, we brush the salted breasts with melted butter and sprinkle them with salt. We roast them until they reach 130 degrees, about 1½ hours, and then remove them from the oven and increase the oven temperature to 500 degrees. We return the breasts to the oven and roast them until the skin is deeply browned and the meat registers 160 degrees, 20 to 30 minutes, before transferring them to a carving board to rest. Next, we brush the braised thighs and drumsticks with melted butter and reheat them until the skin is well browned and the meat registers 110 degrees, 18 to 22 minutes. While the thighs are reheating, we also reheat the gravy. Finally, we carve the breasts and arrange them on a platter with the thighs and drumsticks, passing the gravy separately.

Recipe Turkey and Gravy for a Crowd

Moist, tender meat; crisp, bronzed skin; and rich, full-flavored gravy for 20 people? No problem—if you think like a chef.

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